On Saturday, 10th September, approximately 500 people attended a gathering at Dufferin Grove Park in Toronto to challenge the austerity cuts being put forward by Mayor Rob Ford. It was an impressive gathering with a large diversity of people, a visible fighting spirit, and a keen interest in politics by those in attendance.

Hundreds of youth, workers, students, and Torontonians gathered at the park to discuss and prepare for the struggle against Rob Ford. For many, this was their first political meeting. This is in contrast to many meetings organized by the “left” where the majority in attendance have been the same faces.

This is a testament to the growing mood of anger and frustration in Toronto at the massive cuts being put forward by the reactionary Ford clique. It also speaks to the great efforts made by the activists of the Stop the Cuts Network to organize and promote the event, which includes many fighters who we consider to be our allies.

The activists of Fightback were impressed by the fighting mood of those in attendance. There was a thirst for socialist ideas, and our publication was very well-received by those in attendance. Several trade union leaders were in attendance, including Fred Hahn, the president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) in Ontario.

Public sector workers are particularly targeted by the Rob Ford administration’s cuts, a fact that was visible at the gathering. This clear intent to break the public sector unions is meant to weaken the most organized sections of Toronto’s working class. CUPE locals 416, 79, and 4948, which represent a mix of city employees and librarians, are fighting for their very survival in the coming months and years. It is encouraging to see their union leaders playing a more active role in social movements, and being seen in public decrying the gutting of social services.

The attendance of this meeting shows the great potential and willingness of Toronto residents to fight against the upcoming cuts. We believe, however, that our friends at the Stop the Cuts Network made important mistakes that will seriously weaken the great potential of this gathering, in which we also participated and supported.

We are putting forward several blunt, but comradely, criticisms in the spirit of discussing how to organize an effective fight to protect services and good jobs in this city.

Fighting austerity requires leadership

The stark lack of leadership at the Dufferin Grove gathering was very apparent throughout the meeting. This was an opportunity that could have been used to engage in mass discussion and debate, to put forward a concrete program of action among a crowd of hundreds of potential activists, and to raise a clear direction of struggle in which people could get involved.

We are very critical of the way the mass meeting was set up, organizationally speaking. The meeting, after some introductory remarks, was split into 18 pre-arranged sub-committees by the organizers! They discussed separately and none of their proposals were debated on, or voted upon, by the entire gathering. The exhaustive list of points that were gathered from the 18 groups were then put together into a statement by a grouping of about 20 people.

This is an absurd way to carry on a meeting. Proposals for action and political ideas should have been raised to the entire meeting, and the entire body should have voted for them. This allows for a completely open exchange and challenging of ideas, something that was quite lacking.

It would also allow the meeting to have been much more concrete and to the point. The meeting took a full five hours. Hundreds left before the meeting finished. Many workers have families to attend to, students have academic responsibilities, and many youth have work obligations. They do not have time to sit at a five-hour meeting, especially where nothing seems to be, or is, getting done. The meeting shrank to perhaps half of its size as it continued to drag on for hours.

Most of the meeting amounted to a large listing of the problems people faced. We have to honestly ask whether the organizers of the event believe that working class and poor people do not understand their own problems. Of course they do. That’s why they are attending this meeting to “stop the cuts”. What they need is direction, tasks, and a political discussion about the cause and context of this austerity — the global crisis of capitalism.

Today, capitalism cannot even afford to maintain a semi-miserable existence for the working class in the advanced capitalist countries, let alone the Third World, and is therefore rolling back many of the past reforms and victories won by workers. This is a process occurring across the world. The working class is being made to pay for the crisis caused by the rich.

This means that the Toronto cuts are not a simple problem of Rob Ford’s personal ideological persuasion, nor is the deficit manufactured. Another more progressive-sounding politician would likely institute similar cuts. Austerity is required by capitalism. Only a movement that aims to break with capitalism, and institute a socialist transformation of society can solve the pressing needs of working and poor people. These concepts must be explained to new activists and fighters.

Beyond political analysis, workers and youth are looking for a plan of action to move forward. Several such proposals should be brought up, discussed, debated, and voted on by the entire gathering. The artificial splitting of the group into small committees is not helpful. Sub-committees should only be formed to practically carry out the decisions made by the entire meeting.

There is a serious crisis of leadership in the assembly. For example, it is difficult to even criticize the political direction of the Stop the Cuts Network, because no unified plan exists. There seemed to be no direction other than a vague, and obvious, challenge to the Rob Ford cuts. At best, we can expect that the plan of action of the network will be decided behind the scenes by several handfuls of activists.

Despite the emphasis on involving new people in decisions, anti-hierarchy, and finding consensus, the fact that open and mass debate were avoided will likely force the organizers to engage in small circle decision-making on the direction of the network.

Our experience and involvement in other projects has emphasized the importance of this critique. For example, the University of Toronto General Assembly had enormous potential in its first large gathering of radical students and workers in the spring of 2011. Unfortunately, a lack of leadership caused the body to decline in activity and attendance.

Labour must prepare for a one-day general strike!

Activists and labour militants must always have a sense of proportion when they begin to organize around particular issues. The truth is that a relatively small group of anti-poverty, migrant justice, socialist, and international solidarity activists do not have the power to bring down the Ford agenda. Only the power of millions of workers and youth can stop capitalist austerity in Toronto (or anywhere for that matter).

In that respect, it is vital to have a perspective towards building such a mass movement. Only the mass workers’ organizations, such as the Toronto & York Region Labour Council and the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL), can move the hundreds of thousands onto the streets that would be necessary to win this fight. These are organizations that workers have built through their sweat and blood. They belong to us.  The activists of the Stop the Cuts Network must orient themselves to these organizations, and put public pressure on them to begin to organize such a movement.

The trade unions have already begun to move against the Ford agenda. A coalition, including important labour organizations such as the OFL, organized the Rally for Respect, which saw tens of thousands on the streets of Toronto this past spring. They are making preparations for a similar demonstration on 26th September at Nathan Phillips Square. These are good first steps, but they are not enough.

Organized labour must consciously begin preparing for a one-day general strike to reverse the cuts. The unions must begin popularizing, educating, and preparing for such a mass strike. This means organizing town halls in various workplaces and neighbourhoods, it means agitating for such a movement, and it requires an escalation in demonstrations, occupations, and other actions to prepare the necessary self-confidence of working people for such a counter-attack against the Ford offensive.

Ford’s cuts are not just going to affect Toronto’s public workers.  To properly prepare for a one-day general strike, the workers’ organizations are also going to reach out beyond their own memberships and mobilize and organize unorganized workers, students, youth, immigrants, artists, etc. — the whole population of Toronto that will be attacked by Rob Ford’s cuts.  Only the labour movement is capable of uniting all these disparate groups into one united movement against cuts and austerity.

The Stop the Cuts Network, if it is going to be relevant to the battle against Ford, must orient towards the labour movement and demand that they make preparations for a one-day general strike. Thus far, the Stop the Cuts Network has not publicly made such pressure.  A refusal to do so only weakens our struggle against Ford. Fightback activists raised this exact slogan during the Dufferin Grove Park meeting, and were met with energetic applause, as did a group of women who were speaking about the need to protect women’s services. The slogan strongly resonated with the many attendees, especially the newer layer of workers and youth.

We hope that this feedback will be considered and integrated into the strategies of our friends and allies at the Stop the Cuts Network. In our opinion, the necessary leadership role of the organizers of the event would have been to co-ordinate and educate the anti-Rob Ford movement — with the purpose of pressuring the mass workers’ organizations to prepare massive strike action. This can take the form of political agitation, demonstrations, and a public challenge to the trade union leadership that is unwilling to take the necessary steps.

Remind the labour leaders of their obligation to the workers they represent. Remind the millions of Canadians that it was only through fierce struggle that we won many of the gains that are being stripped from us today, and that such a fight back will be necessary today as well.

The basic principle in the coming period is that the leadership of workers’ organizations, particularly trade unions, have an obligation to organize and prepare for the necessary struggle to protect the standard of living of their members and the wider working class. Those labour and political leaders who are unwilling to do so must step aside. Socialists and radical activists must vocally raise this demand.  

We have a right to protect our livelihoods and that of future generations!

Organized labour must prepare for a one-day general strike!